Thursday, October 18, 2007
Pennsylvania Police Officer Jeff Dennis is on trial in state court for murder in the first degree on the ground that he allegedly shot his wife. If the prosecutor's opening statement is accurate, Dennis is guilty not only of the murder but also of the inability to keep his mouth shut.
According to the prosecutor, before the death of his wife, Dennis frequently bragged to people that he knew how to kill his wife with a bullet to the head while making it look like she pulled the trigger. Dennis' wife in fact did die from a bullet wound to the head. In opening statements, the prosecutor claimed that Dennis killed his wife because she was having an affair; defense counsel claimed that the wound was self-inflicted.
According to the prosecutor's opening statement, not only did Dennis brag about his "ability" before his wife's death, but he also wove nine different tales about his wife's shooting after her death. For instance, Dennis' wife was shot in the couple's bedroom, and, according to the prosecutor, Dennis told different people that when his wife was shot, he was in the bedroom, in the hallway outside the bedroom, and at work (only finding his wife dead when he returned home).
In his opening statement, defense counsel characterized this evidence as hearsay and vowed to give the jurors a roadmap around that hearsay. The Pennsylvania Rules of Evidence indicate that the jurors will have quite a bumpy road ahead of them.
The Pennsylvania Code of Evidence is structured differently than the Federal Rules of Evidence, but its Rule 803(25) is identical to the Federal Rule regarding the admissions of party-opponents (although it treats them as hearsay exceptions rather than admissible non-hearsay). Thus, under Rule 803(25), the statement of a party-opponent is an admission and admissible against him at trial. Here, Dennis' statements are the statements of the prosecutor's party opponent (the criminal defendant) and thus admissible when offered against him. Thus, jurors should be able to hear all of Dennis' boasts and ever-changing stories as the case proceeds.